Allan faithfully attended each class of the Mindfulness-based Stress Management program we offer at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. He shared openly about his anxiety and insecurity as a father to three children and a son caring for ill parents. The heart of his distress though was in his relationship with Debra, his partner of 15 years; their relationship had devolved into a series of sniping comments and hurtful neglect. He wanted so much to restore the intimacy and love they had once shared. He missed how it sustained him through his demanding job and personal illness. He knew she did too; after all they seemed to do a lot of arguing over who was more unhappy in the marriage.
In the program, we had explored what it meant to be mindful. Allan had come into the program with the usual hopes for peace and serenity. He even said if he could just stay serene as Deb threw cushions at him to punctuate her comments, he would feel like a Buddha! As the classes progressed and he learned how to meet the difficult and unwanted feelings he experienced himself, Allan began to see that mindfulness was not just about being well-balanced on the meditation cushion (which he said he’d never thought of flinging across the room)!
This mindfulness thing was tough, he reported back to the group. It was about seeing who he became when the world around him was chaotic, when people he loved were unreachable because of their suffering, and when that triggered his fears of losing them. And it was about resisting the impulse to take the high road when relaxation and calm gave him the upper hand. In the class after we explored the experiential process of feeling emotions and meeting them without judgment, Allan shared an incident with his partner that shook him to the core (which is not a bad thing).
They had been arguing and he found himself able to steady the physiological sensations of anxiety and anger. He used his breathing to bring the heat of the experience down, to clear his mind with grounding practices, to listen carefully without judging. Then in a calm voice he said, “We’re both suffering here. We’re both having a really hard time hearing each other. Can we sit down and try again?”
Unexpectedly, his partner became enraged. “You’re just using all that mindfulness crap to shut me down! You’ve weaponized your practice!” Alan was devastated. But he was also honest with himself and the group. He was tired of the rancorous debates, the constant irritation. He just wanted some peace and quiet. So yes, he admitted to us. He had used the breathing and grounding to steady himself but also to shut down the process that he knew inevitably ended up in pain and hurt. Now he felt guilty and very concerned that mindfulness was making him someone manipulative!
The heart of mindfulness practice is in clarifying our values, our ways of interacting with ourselves and each other. That’s why the practice is called a cultivation of skills. And the intention with which we apply those skills determines whether it is “skillful” or “unskillful”. Most times, we don’t intend to deliberately cause hurt or suffering. Most times, we are responding out of our own suffering and we have a misstep in our relationships. And yes, sometimes we take the high road and might use the cachet of mindfulness to put someone down or justify our judgemental thought, speech or action.
Weaponizing mindfulness was a new term for all of us but it is powerful. It was a mindful bell for each of us to become more alert to how we engage with these skills. The Five Skillful Habits of respect for life, being generous, setting limits, compassionate speech, and mindful consumption are our navigation points. These allow us to check in with our intentions and clarify our motivation to act, speak, and think in ways that are kind, useful, truthful, and supportive. For mindfulness to transform our unskilfulness, we need to pay attention to our values, which are our North Star constantly informing us how far off course we are drifting.
Allan’s experience is not unusual. With the popularity of mindfulness these days, it’s easy for the phrase “Oh I was just being mindful” to give or take away suffering. In fact, I do believe that the most skillful practice of mindfulness is for it not to look like mindfulness but rather to look like just plain kindness.